A mental framework is the model we use to simplify the complex and ambiguous world around us; it contains our assumptions on how the world works, our values and our beliefs. In actuality we have multiple mental frames, one or more dealing with each aspect of life, some competing.
Consider your PM frame, if I refer to an organization’s PMO, what are your assumptions about the PMO? What functions does the PMO fulfill? Is the PMO a business or project construct? Certainly it is Project Management Office, but beyond that your frame and mine could be as different as day and night as to its function and role. The same can be said for a number of other terms in our PM lexicon, like Program Manager, change, risk, etc. Our PM frames vary based on our experience within the profession (software development, construction, automotive, nuclear, marketing, finance, manufacturing, etc.) and our underlying educational achievements (engineering, scientist, business administration, pharmacology, etc.) This difference accounts for difficulty two PMs have communicating, outside a given environment. Thus, an important communications point is, don’t impose your frame on the other party and constantly check your understanding because of a potential frame difference.
For example, at a recent gathering on cloud computing an individual approached me for information relative to Program Management Professional (PgMP)® credential. Once I understood the topic of the conversation, I did a frame check with the question: What is your definition of a Program Manager? With there being so many variations on this job title, I needed to know if his definition was the same as PMI’s. It was.
Now let’s put ourselves in a position of starting a new project. As the team goes through the planning process, they are creating a shared mental framework for the project; a congruence of assumptions, goals, activities, etc. The success or failure of the project can literally depend on framing language.
One final point, frames can become outdated. Sometimes the updating is automatic, for example, a decade of more ago you knew the location of everyone you called (home or work), now with cell phones the person can be almost anywhere in the world. Your mental frame was changed from the assumption that a phone number is tied to a single physical location, and that evolved slowly over time as cellular technology developed and spread. Now let’s take a trip to the other end of the continuum where the challenges to your assumptions are not in your face. These may be well entrenched, “we have always done it this way” or “I was raised to believe”; some may have been outdated when we acquired them. Is there anyone listening from the Flat Earth Society? As you can surmise, someone that thinks the world is flat will not do well working on a launch project for NASA.